In addition to our gadget discussion at the last meeting, I tackled the topic of storing produce.
Did you know you can dramatically extend the life of your fruits and vegetables in the few minutes it takes to unpack your bags from the store or market? Prepare to be amazed.
I don’t like going to the grocery store any more often than I need to. I have three small children and we are a one car family, so getting to the store is a chore even though it’s simple once we’re there. (We’ll talk at the next meeting about how having a rocking stash of longer-term storage foods like lentils and canned tomatoes can save you time, money and hassle at the grocery store.)
I love having fresh fruits and vegetables on hand. That means when I do go to the store, our fridge is usually bursting. And in the summertime often our counters are covered as well.
Inevitably, when produce goes bad before I use it I have guilt. I hate the wasted money (and often, wasted meal plan since I can’t make the thing I was planning on any longer and I have to come up with an alternative).
At my house, produce goes bad when:
- I totally forget about something in the back of the fridge
- I think we’ve eaten something that we haven’t
- My plans for meals get scrambled up due to unexpected events and something particularly perishable gets pushed back in the schedule too far.
- It also happens when I buy a vegetable that I don’t have concrete plans for using up. We have learned over the years that Scott is in charge of all exotic vegetable purchases and cooking because it stresses me out to have an aging rutabaga and no idea what to do with it. (Actually, over the years our definition of “exotic” has changed as we’ve become more comfortable with different foods. I know just what to do with rutabaga now. )
For a little perspective on the amount of produce we can go through in a big week in the summer, here is a humorous post from several years ago with a detailed list of all the fresh stuff we had to fit in our fridge after a particularly egregious overbuy, and the 72 hour follow-up. I loved re-reading those because I’ve come so far in my knowledge of how to take care of my produce after I bring it home.
Heirloom tomatoes in the fridge? Not anymore.
How Good Food Goes Bad
The five main variables for keeping fruits and vegetables in good condition are:
- Freshness/quality at the time of purchase
- Time before you eat it
- Storage temperature
- Storage humidity (moisture level in the air)
- Exposure to ethylene gas, which only affects some fruits and vegetables
We can control many variables in this situation:
- Where to put things in the fridge
- What to store things in
- Where and when we buy our produce
- What goes in the fridge and what stays on the counter
- Whether to wash things before storing them.
- What to eat first, next, and last from our produce stash.
If this is news to you, get excited. Knowledge is power. But don’t worry about blowing it if you can’t swallow all this information at once. Just make small adjustments and see if your results are improved… then build on that.
It matters where we put things in the fridge and what we store things in
In preparation for this meeting, I went to one of my favorite sources for produce a full week beforehand and deliberately stashed each thing I bought in my fridge in different ways to showcase the impact on freshness 7 days later.
Here are the results documented rather feebly in pictures. The differences were more striking in person.
Cilantro, stored in the produce bag I grabbed at the store (not washed beforehand, except for the regular misting that occurs at the store:
Result: Limp, yellowing in parts and black in other parts. There was definitely some that could still be salvaged and used, but the slimy bits were pretty unappealing.
I stored another, comparable, bunch of cilantro in a tupperware fridgesmart container. I untied the bunch when I brought it home from the store, spread it out a bit and picked out any remotely bad looking leaves. This kind of tupperware container has two vent holes and a list on the side of the container of which fruits and vegetables do better with 2 holes open versus 1 hole open or both closed. I followed the instructions for fresh herbs and kept one vent hole open.
One week later, I opened the lid and took this picture:
Aside from one rogue piece at the top that was crunched in the lid and removed, the rest of the bunch probably looks better than when I bought it. No limpness, slime or change of color. It smells great and none went to waste.
Red leaf lettuce
The green leaf lettuce didn’t look good at the store so I ended up with red leaf, which unfortunately makes it more challenging to see wilt and color change. However, you could feel the difference with this one.
For the first head, I kept it wrapped in the produce bag I grabbed at the store and it was just damp from being misted at the store.
Result: Definitely limp and unappealing. I hear you can freshen up lettuce by soaking it very cold water and that may have worked. It wasn’t slimy but it wasn’t anywhere near as crisp enough to entice me to make it into a salad.
For the other head, I brought it home from the store and just popped it in a Kinetic
Go Green Nano Silver food storage container (along with some bell peppers):
The plastic is normally clear, so you can see it is humid in there.
I wish you could reach out and touch the lettuce. It’s still crisp and beautiful and every bit as appealing as the day I bought it.
Strawberries – Although I’ve had wonderful results from storing berries in these containers in the past, unfortunately there weren’t very high quality berries at the store this time around so after a week even the ones that were stored better weren’t in wonderful condition.
They look ok in the picture but pretty gross in person. I honestly debated not feeding them to my kids the next day but they aren’t picky when it comes to berries and gobbled them up anyway after I had cut out the worst parts. These berries were dark, puckered, and the leaves were wilty.
For the other batch of strawberries, I took them out of the clamshell and put them straight into their own Kinetic
Go Green Nano Silver food storage container. I’m not sure whether it’s because they were already looking a bit dodgy at the store or because I didn’t open the container at all during the week they lived in there… but it was TOO moist in the container:
Had I noticed that earlier, I would have dried out the sides of the container a bit mid-week.
At any rate, the berries were definitely better looking than those still in the clamshell. These were still plump with vibrant leaves . Several suffered from soggy bottoms, but I had no qualms about serving these up with lunch the following day.
Finally, I had 4 orange bell peppers, which I stored differently. One went straight onto the fridge shelf:
It was shriveled and still edible but only barely so.
One was put straight in a “crisper” drawer in the fridge:
It seems to have been a bit battered by its stay in the drawer, and it showed mold on the stem and a softening bottom, but it definitely fared better than the pepper on the shelf.
One pepper I left wrapped up in the produce bag from the store:
This pepper looked fine, nearly as good as when I bought it.
Finally, I put a pepper in a Kinetic
Go Green Nano Silver food storage container (with the lettuce):
The pepper was every bit as good looking as the day I bought it.
A fridge “crisper” drawer is simply intended to trap humidity. Refrigerators depend on continual air circulation and it’s very dry air. Keeping something in a drawer protects it from some of that drying cycle. Keeping it contained in a bag would increase that protection somewhat, but some things like fresh herbs need (humid) air circulation to avoid becoming slimy so a bag is really not ideal. And for leafy greens like lettuce, often the moisture on them as they come home from the store is not sufficient to prevent wilting if they are just left in a bag.
Lots of details on my specific recommendations are at the bottom of this post.
Where and When We Buy Our Produce Matters
I’m continually amazed by the difference in quality of produce at the different grocery stores in my area. There’s understandably a dramatic difference from chain to chain, but some specific locations are notoriously bad (or good) for produce as well.
Let me be clear on this: eating produce is miles better than not eating produce, and you certainly don’t need to be fussy to reap the major nutritional benefits from increasing your fruit and vegetable intake. We have just found that since produce constitutes the vast majority of what we buy on a shopping trip, it’s worth finding the best sources for it. And choosing the best melon or leek is another whole topic altogether… one we’ve had the fun of figuring out over time.
I’m sure this varies by area, but we have been happy with nearly all the produce at Costco and Meijer. We have favorite farms to buy peaches and apples from directly when they are in season. We have been less happy with produce from Marc’s and Aldi. It seems that Giant Eagle and Kroger have produce that varies wildly in quality depending on location.
Over time, explore the stores where you live and pay close attention to the freshness and variety of their produce (this happens pretty naturally when you start increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables).
Buy in season. Buy in season. Buy in season. Some fruits and vegetables are so season dependent that the flavor and longevity will be vastly different if you buy them out of season. Also, in general, the further something has traveled to arrive at the store, the worse it’ll taste. Buying in season doesn’t have to be complicated, just ask yourself as you’re making a meal plan, “what’s in season?” and focus more heavily on those things. Again, this is something that becomes second nature over time as you’re eating more fruits and vegetables.
Ask the produce department manager when they get deliveries. Costco, for example, gets produce delivered twice a week. So given the choice, I shop on days when they’ve stocked their shelves with fresh produce rather than on days when the produce is 2 days older.
What goes in the fridge and what stays on the counter
Cooler air slows down or stops the ripening/rotting process. That means that putting some fruits and vegetables straight in the fridge is the best thing you can do for them, but for others… it’s bad news.
Washing things before storing them
Here again, washing before storing can be excellent for some things (sturdy leafy greens) but a death sentence for other things (apples, berries). Usually this comes down to the ideal humidity level for storing the food. Our default is to wash before eating.
What to eat first, next, and last from our produce stash
We have found two helpful tools to guide our consumption:
- I make a list of dinners I intend to make from the produce I bought, and I put our meal list in order so that we’re eating the most fragile produce first and saving the hardier produce to stretch out our next trip to the store.
Example: Our dishes on our list might be: black bean soup, a butter lettuce salad with red pears and onions, a white bean soup with fresh spinach in it, pan-roasted asparagus, baked ratatouille with eggplant and peppers, cashew kale quinoa with red peppers, and lentil and rice burritos. We usually cook enough for 2 dinners when we make things like soup or burritos, so that meal list is for about 10 days. Eggplant and delicate lettuce like butter lettuce take top priority, then probably the asparagus side dish, and the soup with spinach, followed by the cashew kale with peppers. Dishes that mainly come from canned and dry goods such as black bean soup and lentil and rice burritos come last on the list. They help me extend my time between trips to the store.
I rarely am able to “schedule” meals because our appetites and plans seem to change a lot with Scott’s erratic work schedule and the way my day plays out with three small children but I do have a loose “order of meals” that I follow so I know what I hope to make next.
We also have great success using a “Hit List” on the front of our fridge. It’s a very low tech way to make sure things get eaten in a timely manner to minimize waste. When we’re browsing for a snack or trying to pull lunch together, we can glance at the list and know what produce (and leftovers) are top priority to eat soon. I jot one down on an as-needed basis and we just cross off and tack new things on for as long as the list stays readable.
You can see I listed down the left with the least perishable things at the bottom. As I crossed off a few, I added more items off to the right but they are still clustered by perishability (strawberries near the top).
To answer a question someone asked at the healthy group night: How do I know what should get eaten first? My answer was… you learn as you go.
Putting it all together
There are lots of guides you can find online for what to store where. The problem is that they often conflict. Here are two that seem sane to me: this post on The V Spot and this article on ecoki. And this one actually has hard data on ideal temperatures, humidity, and ethylene gas production and sensitivity: Optimal Fruit and Vegetable Storage Conditions.
I highly recommend buying some dedicated storage containers for your fridge because they’ve made such a big difference in our house over the last three years we’ve used them. We’ve noticed two drawbacks: our favorite containers don’t nest well when they’re not in use. And, produce stored in containers will take up more room than if you just stuff it in the fridge while its still in the produce bags. Because of the latter, and to save time, if we plan on eating certain things within two days, we don’t bother boxing those things up. We own one of the biggest size, and one the next size down, as well as a variety pack of smaller sizes and we love them all. You may want to measure your fridge shelf space before investing in the large sizes.
My takeaway from the little experiment I did was not that everyone should run out and buy the exact same containers I use (although I’ve been super happy with them in the ~3 years we’ve owned them). My takeaway is simply that: the way you store produce can have a huge impact on maintaining its quality. So pay a little attention. Do a little experimenting of your own. Try putting a damp paper towel in with your lettuce. Try storing your berries in a regular old tupperware until you eat them and see if you notice a difference.
Here are some things that work for me:
Apples – Pull out any that are bruised and eat those first. Don’t wash until right before eating. Keep in a plastic bag in the fridge if possible, though a loose box in the basement will still keep a few weeks.
Potatoes (all kinds), onions (except for green onions and leeks), winter squash – These need ventilation! No plastic bags. Place in loose mesh or open boxes in a cool, dark place but not in your fridge. There’s some talk about onions and potatoes needing to be separated to increase longevity so you might try that.
Melons of all kinds, and pineapple – keep on the counter until they smell and feel ready to eat. Then cut and refrigerate. I keep my pineapple upside down because it seems to keep the sugar from pooling at the bottom as much.
Pears and avocados – keep on the counter until they are ripe (or almost ripe, in the case of pears since we like them a bit firm) then pop them in the fridge and they’ll keep for weeks. I leave avocados exposed to fridge air and I keep pears wrapped in a plastic bag in the crisper.
Fresh herbs (including green onions) – Just like the cilantro treatment above, I always separate the bunches and fluff them a bit and box them up. I’ll sometimes spray them just a bit if they seem dry to begin with. Others say they trim them and stick them in a glass of water with a plastic bag on top and they keep them in the fridge for weeks with success. I haven’t tried this myself, mainly because I’m a klutz and likely to knock over that glass of water in a hurry.
Lettuce and spinach – These need to be damp and able to breathe and the best way I’ve found to do this is to put them in one of my storage containers in the fridge and take care not to pack them too tightly. You can rinse and spin them mostly dry first, or give them a light spray with water if they look wilty already. If I buy spinach that is pre-bagged, I leave it in there but as soon as we’ve eaten some I toss the rest around in the bag to prevent clumping (which leads to sliminess). I’ve heard a damp paper towel together with the leafies in a perforated plastic bag does a great job. Experiment and see what is a good fit for you.
Other leafy greens (kale, collards, chard) – These tend to be hardier and I usually cut them off the stalks and put them in a produce container. They don’t seem to mind being packed pretty tightly in there, and I don’t usually add any extra moisture.
Eggplant – Eat soon and wrap in plastic wrap in the fridge if you get desperate.
Summer squash - Same protocol as eggplant, but they last longer on the counter.
Berries – Straight into a container in the fridge.
Bananas – Keep on counter and eat until they get spots, then feed to the kids, then if they are really spotty I peel them and freeze them for quick breads and smoothies later.
Peppers, any kind – Straight into a storage container in the fridge
Mangos – On counter until ripe, then start eatin’!
Asparagus – My strategy in the past has been to keep this in the fridge and eat it soon, but apparently the glass of water trick works as well as it does for herbs, so I might try that.
Tomatoes – Used canned tomatoes unless you can get local tomatoes in season. In that case, keep them on the counter and eat them soon. Never refrigerate because it kills the flavor.
Citrus – Keep on the counter.
Grapes – Straight in the fridge, leave in perforated plastic bag or clam shell.
Leeks – I cut them down to size a bit (and save the darker parts for soup, yum!) and put them in an oblong storage container. I will sometimes cut them open and wash them thoroughly first, or I’ll do that right before I cook with them. Those suckers are dirty!
Mushrooms – Refrigerate in original packaging and use soon.
Peaches – Leave on counter until ripe and then eat and eat some more. You can refrigerate if you truly can’t keep up with eating them.
Rutabagas – May or may not be waxed. These will keep a really long time in the fridge if waxed, but the goal is to keep them humid so it’s a good idea to put them in a container.
Pomegranates – We leave them on our counter but stick them in the fridge if too much time goes by and they keep a long time. You can freeze the seeds!